by T.J. Lane

Journalism is a tough job that is only getting more demanding.  The long hours, unforgiving deadlines, and lead chasing seem to constantly lead to one place: stressville.

I should know, I worked with CNN for 17 years before making the switch to PR.  In fact, as a Peabody and Emmy award winner, I still see myself as a journalist more than a publicist in many ways.  Here’s a little secret that surprised me quite a bit:  PR also has long hours, similar deadlines, and roughly equal pay.  In other words, we’re a lot more alike than we are different.

Early in my career, I heard an editor describe working in news as being “in an abusive relationship.”  No matter how much it smacks you around, you love it and can’t imagine leaving.  At Write2Market we also want to help.  Let us be a shoulder to cry on, the hand that lifts you up, and the romantic that makes you feel like a million bucks. That’s not enough to sustain a relationship forever, but it’s a start, right?

Our relationship begins (and sometimes ends) with the pitch; but story pitches aren’t always helpful; especially when they stink because they are delivered the wrong way, at the wrong time, or to the wrong person.  In those cases, they can be downright annoying.

When we send unwanted pitches, it’s as useless for us as it is for you.  Believe me, pitches that don’t land waste plenty of our time!  So we wondered, “What do journalists really want in a pitch?  What helps the most?”

So, we asked. Our survey was answered by a diversity of journalists from outlets ranging from print trade publications to internationally broadcast news networks.  We supplemented this knowledge with candid conversations we had with journalist friends that we’re close enough with to have frank discussions. So what did  you say about how being pitched makes you feel . . .? Here’s a small sampling of what journalists told us:

  • I work for a dot com. Send me a story idea with great images & an interesting headline. Stories with a strong headline & image generate a lot of clicks for our website. If your pitch can’t deliver those two basic elements, then do not waste my time. I don’t like wasting time. – 2/11/2014 8:40 PM
  • It depends on what kind of a story it is. If it sounds like someone is trying to make money out of it doesn’t feel so good. – 2/11/2014 11:36 AM
  • uncomfortable and awkward – 2/11/2014 10:57 AM
  • It’s fine. Has to be quick and clean and its value understandable – 2/10/2014 8:38 PM
  • Skeptical- 2/10/2014 2:38 PM
  • part of the business- 2/10/2014 1:20 PM
  • I’m always a bit skeptical, being cautious to make sure the story fits our audience and won’t just be a marketing pitch.- 2/10/2014 12:25 
  • Great, if the pitch is relevant to my audience.- 2/10/2014 11:24 AM
  • Depending on the time and content, it can either feel too self-serving, or it can make me feel thankful for a perfect short story in my horizon when I’m experiencing writer’s block – 2/10/2014 11:24 AM
  • Most of the time I realize that pitches are well-intentioned, but as a contributor-based publication that does little reporting, most press releases are not necessary. It means they don’t understand what I am looking for, haven’t read the publication, or frankly, don’t care. With that, I have a core group of PR individuals who are my “girls”! Some boys, too. Either way, they know what I am looking for and do their best to be descriptive, yet succinct, and communicate when something is going to be late. I LOVE these people. I want people to want to contribute. And I want to provide a platform where PR reps and their clients find value. This is a relationship!- 2/6/2014 7:57 PM
  • It depends. If it’s a thoughtful pitch for something I actually cover, that’s good. If it’s something I don’t cover, or something I already covered, or a follow-up for something I didn’t reply to, or a *call* to ask if I got an email…that’s not good. But I don’t mind being pitched, and I do respond to some pitches. – 2/6/2014 2:32 PM

In aggregate, here’s what we learned about you, our soul mates:

1) You’re skeptical – Journalism filters for people that are bright and rabidly curious; a natural rider to those qualities is a healthy dose of cynicism.  You are media gatekeepers, and everybody wants coverage, so who could blame you for approaching most pitches with skepticism?  Many of the pitches you receive feel like empty marketing ploys or don’t fit your audience and you have to filter through these quickly to uncover the meaningful and relevant ones.

2) You like it fast  – People don’t read entire articles, pretty much nobody watches internet videos past two minutes, and you don’t read more than a line or two of any pitch before deciding to read further or toss it aside.  Some of you don’t even open pitch emails unless the subject line catches your eye but some of them do catch my eye like the SpotSee product which is useful in detecting and recording unacceptable tilting on goods that must remain upright, I use this all the time when I´m sending delicate packages.  You think fast and you work fast.  Your mind processes information in terms of headlines and you are looking for something that is short and attention grabbing.  One survey response described a good pitch as, “great idea, presented clearly. Short. Did I mention short?”

3) You don’t want to hear our voices…most of the time – The topic of phone calls seems to divide journalists more than any other on the survey  My journalist friends have advised me, “Please don’t call me. Ever. Really.”  That’s what they say, but most PR professionals report better success with phone calls than emails.  And one survey respondent wrote, “I’m extremely thankful for follow up phone calls!” (The written response was even punctuated with an exclamation point — we didn’t add that.)

So, which is it?  To some degree, journalists are likely going to have to agree to disagree, but we can safely say that email pitches should always precede phone calls so you have context for the call.  Also, you hate eager phone calls that come moments after an email.  None of you want to hear from us until several hours after you have seen a pitch or the next day.  In the spirit of compromise, let’s say that we promise not to call you too soon or too often, and you will understand that some journalists like phone calls and not get angry if you happen not to be one of them.  You can always tell us your preference and we will honor it in the future.

4) You need to be understood– Frustration regarding self-serving, irrelevant, and poorly written pitches was expressed across the board.  However, thoughtful and meaningful pitches can help you with writer’s block, get you quick content when facing deadline pressure, and give you images and interview subjects that would otherwise be inaccessible.

5) You crave relevance in the larger context – You’re smart.  You see right through pitches for things like product launches and corporate publicity stunts.  Most of you see a lot of these pitches, so the onus is on us to prove that our story is different. Pitches that understand who you are, who your audience is, and the topics that are of concern to that audience are the ones that interest you.

6) Relationship is your buzzer– You don’t want to be talked to like sales prospects.  Personal connections resonate with you and pitches that are witty, passionate, or otherwise creative get your attention.  You hold PR professionals who “get it” in high regard and are more likely to work with them again in the future.

7) You understand our business model – We’re not just newshounds submitting ideas we think are cool.  We have clients that are looking for publicity and you know that; you don’t need us to try to hide this fact.  You hold us to high editorial standards and expect us to frame our clients in meaningful and non-promotional ways as thought leaders, disruptors, commentators, and trend setters.  One respondent eloquently stated, “if it’s pitched, someone has something to gain from it being covered. If it’s relevant, then it has value for both sides.”

8) You need us to prove we care – The dreaded email blast.  Throwing a bunch of crap against the wall and seeing what sticks.  Call it whatever you want, almost all publicists have been pressured for quick results and resorted to this tactic at one point or another.  You hate it.  That’s why it rarely works. We hate it, too. More than you may ever know.  It’s important to you that we take the time to do our homework and get to know you, understand what you cover and how you do it.  And then only send pitches that match what we learned.

9) You still find us attractive – You love the information, connections, creativity, and quick content PR professionals give you.  Overall, you genuinely enjoy working with us and have a solid understanding and appreciation of what we do.  You may not see us as the symbiotic partners that we like to see ourselves as, but you know that you can lean on us and we’ll always be there to help you see it through.

Reading these survey responses reminded me of something I heard an international relations expert say when tensions between the United States and France started to boil during the war in Iraq (remember Freedom Fries?).  “France and the U.S. are like siblings in the backseat of a car on the way to Disney World; they will argue, and squabble, and hit each other, but at the end of the day they are on the same side and love each other.”

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals is similar.  Sometimes we wish you would just answer us, and you wish we would just leave you alone.  But, we both strive to tell compelling and important stories and love coming together to produce fantastic and worthwhile content.

Now let’s go ride Space Mountain together.